My previous post responded to Duane Boyce's critique of some modern LDS scholars who pointed to the fallibility of human leaders in the Church in ways that Boyce felt were egregious and irresponsible. Since then, Boyce has published Part Two of "A Lengthening Shadow: Is Quality of Thought Deteriorating in LDS Scholarly Discourse Regarding Prophets and Revelation?"
where his target is Grant Hardy's impressive work, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

I felt the tone of Part 2 was an improvement over Part 1. But flaws in the approach remain that I wish to address, for I feel that Hardy's book, in spite of some flaws, is a genuinely important and faithful work on the Book of Mormon in which analysis of easily missed subtleties in the text help us see and better understand the distinct and ancient voices who produced various parts of the Book of Mormon text.

Hardy's analysis of Nephi's voice seems to offend Boyce for it suggests that Nephi was not simply regurgitating the words of God, other prophets, and angels, but reveals some of his own feelings, perspectives, and even agendas. Hardy's analysis of how Nephi presents and interprets the tree of life vision, for example, is said to be horrifically flawed. Hardy sees in Nephi's account a brother who emphasized hell and judgement in teaching his abusive elder brothers, at whose hand he and Jacob had suffered for years, whereas father Lehi does not focus on the same details and instead is more of a tender parent fearful that two of his dear sons might not have the joy that God offers them.

However, Boyce’s analysis of the tree of life in his critique of Hardy seems to overlook some crucial points. Boyce seems to want things to be neatly classified as black and white, such that the tree of life either means the very tree John saw, or the specific tree Adam encountered. Connections to both are improperly ruled out. The broad significance of the tree of life in the ancient Near East (and Book of Mormon) is overlooked.

After noting the relationship between the tree of life in Nephi’s vision and Mary and the coming of Christ, Boyce says: “The idea of life — indeed, of divine life — permeates the account. These elements of the record make it easy to imagine Nephi’s referring to the tree he sees as the ‘tree of life,’ independent of the tree in the Garden of Eden. Nephi explicitly saw what John saw of a ‘tree of life’ — a tree that represented spiritual abundance and glory and that was associated with living waters. Moreover, even what he saw of Lehi’s tree served as a forceful and holy symbol of the bestowal of life.” [emphasis added]

But how does Boyce jump from parallels to John’s tree of life to the claim that Nephi’s tree is “independent of the tree in the Garden of Eden”? The tree of life is a well-known ancient theme, or complex of themes, that permeated wisdom literature and abounded throughout the Near East in art and literature. That term is used multiple times in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. Both Christian and Jewish writings link it not only to fruit but also to waters and to life, including divine life. I cannot imagine an ancient Jewish or early Christian writer such as Nephi or John or Lehi speaking of the “tree of life” without understanding and intending connections to various well known aspects of that ancient theme.

Boyce writes as if the Genesis tree of life cannot possibly have been invoked by Nephi because his tree has strong parallels to John’s tree of life, but John’s tree of life cannot be separated from that of the Old Testament. His tree may be different or used for a different purpose, but the concept is overtly similar: a divine tree with fruit that brings life. They are part of the same complex of themes.

Neglecting the basic knowledge and extensive scholarship on this point raises serious questions about the methodology in Boyce’s black-and-white effort approach that seeks to paint LDS scholars with interesting insights as egregiously wrong. It’s OK to disagree with their interpretations and some may go too far, but the reasons given in the tree of life discussion seem highly flawed.

By way of background, see Wilford Grigg, “The Tree of Life in Ancient Cultures,” from the June 1988 Ensign. It’s an excellent overview of how that theme rooted in Genesis plays a vital in later Jewish and Christian thought. See also Daniel Peterson’s famous work, “Nephi and His Asherah,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9/2 (2000): 16–25, 80–81. Also just consider Genesis 2 and other OT references to the tree of life to see that it is likewise associated with water and, of course, life (Gen. 2:9-10, and Prov. 13:10-12 with a fountain of life and tree of life). Also consider, among many works that could be cited, Roland E. Murphy, The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature, 3rd ed. (Frand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1990), Kindle edition. An excerpt follows:
Within the Hebrew Bible itself, the wisdom literature is exciting, because it deals directly with life . The sages of Israel did not share the same interest in the saving interventions of the Lord as did the Deuteronomistic historians. Their concern was the present, and how to cope with the challenges provoked by one's immediate experience. Their intensity often equalled that of the Deuteronomists (cf. Deut 4–11, esp. texts like 4:1, 6:1–9). The choice between life and death which Moses dramatically places before Israel in Deut 30:15–30 is reechoed in the sages' emphasis on life. The life-death situation is expressed positively in the image of "the tree of life." Wisdom "is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; fortunate are they who embrace her" (Prov 3:18). This image was well known from its appearance in Genesis: the first dwellers in the garden were kept from that tree lest they live forever (Gen 2:9, 3:22–24). In a vivid turn of metaphor, wisdom has become the tree of life and is personified as a woman: "Long life is in her right hand—in her left, riches and honor" (Prov 3:16). She can boast that the one who finds her finds life (Prov 8:35), and the one who fails is ultimately in love with … death (8:36). (Kindle edition, "Foreword," loc. 52)
And later:
The teaching of the wise [in Proverbs] is "a fountain of life" (13:14); this is also applied to "fear of the Lord" (14:27), which is also the beginning of wisdom. The symbols of fountain and tree of life are frequent: 10:11; 16:22; 3:18; 11:30; 13:12. (Kindle edition, p. 28 loc. 731; emphasis added)
I don’t think one can fairly claim that whatever Nephi and Lehi said about the tree can possibly be “independent” of the Genesis account and the many interrelated themes and concepts. That John and Nephi associate water with the tree does not exclude a connection to the tree of life in the Old Testament.

Boyce’s claim is even further undercut by Lehi’s own words recorded by Nephi a few chapters later when he expressly addresses the tree of life in the Garden of Eden in 2 Nephi 2:15. These teachings of Lehi in the discourse with his call of repentance to his wayward sons have a purpose similar to the purpose taught by Lehi’s dream of the tree, and the connection simply cannot be denied.

This connection should be overwhelmingly clear by Nephi’s reference to a flaming sword associated with his tree, obviously and remarkably similar to the flaming sword the Lord uses in Genesis 3 to keep Adam away from the tree of life. Boyce seems to turn to special pleading to deny the significance of the connection, while grudgingly admitting that there is a superficial similarity(!). Again, he points to the existence of some differences to deny a connection: “The first feature that creates a difficulty is the dissimilarity that exists between the two fiery elements. Whereas the fire and sword Nephi sees specifically represent the justice of God — and explicitly separate the wicked from the righteous and from God — this is not true of the fiery sword in the Garden of Eden. The Genesis account does not frame Adam and Eve as wicked, and its fiery element does not represent the justice of God: it is a flaming sword that merely prevents Adam and Eve from partaking of the tree and living forever. That both accounts have fiery elements, therefore, is only weak evidence that the fire Nephi sees puts him in mind of the tree in the Garden of Eden.”

The fiery sword protecting the tree of life has become merely a “fiery element” shared perhaps by chance alone with Nephi’s vision. We are to dismiss the connection–when the mere use of the term “tree of life” is ample evidence of a connection to the well known tree of life theme, and the specific use of a fiery sword should remove all doubt. Hardy has a very plausible point, and what becomes implausible if not egregiously wrong is the effort to deny a connection. The methodology Boyce applies leaves me perplexed.

Boyce makes a valid point in noting a significant weakness in Hardy’s use of 1 Nephi 15:36, “the wicked are rejected from the righteous, and also from that tree of life” (1 Nephi 15:36). The word “rejected” probably should be “separated” which undermines one supporting argument from Hardy but does not demolish his point about Nephi’s view relative to Lehi’s. Hardy offers a footnote observing that Skousen proposes it should be “separated.” This is not enough for Boyce, who cries foul since Hardy has failed to let Skousen’s conclusion change his mind (after relying on Skousen’s proposed changes elsewhere) and insists that Hardy is guilty of error in this manner.

While I personally respect Skousen’s work and rely on it heavily, there is irony in Boyce’s argument that needs to be noted. Some of the irony is that the very mistake he accuses Hardy of making, connecting the tree of life in Nephi’s account to that of Genesis 2, has been rather naturally made by other LDS leaders in various talks and sermons, and even the footnotes in the current printing of the Book of Mormon for 1 Nephi connects the term “tree of life” to Gen. 2:9.

There is further irony. According to Boyce, Hardy’s error here is in relying on the wording from the official LDS canon (“rejected”), the wording that has been approved by leaders of the Church instead of fully accepting an alternative (“separated”) proposed by an LDS scholar in an unofficial, uncanonized but highly scholastic work. I agree with Boyce that this should have been addressed more fully in the text and not merely observed in a footnote, but feel Boyce’s protest is too harsh here. Isn’t Boyce’s argument highlighting a case where human fallibility among leaders has resulted in an alleged error in the scriptures that LDS scholarship may now help correct? If such errors don’t matter because prophets are virtually infallible in all things that are important, can Hardy’s apparent error actually matter?

In other words, in Parts 1 and 2 Boyce condemns scholars who imply prophets are fallible in ways that might actually matter. He also condemns scholars who offer new readings of scripture that may highlight human weakness in prophets or otherwise depart from teachings of some leaders in the Church. But then he condemns Hardy for an argument that draws upon the wording in the official, canonized version of the Book of Mormon instead of fully accepting an alternative in wording proposed by an LDS scholar in an academic work that has not been canonized and that inherently points to the existence of possible error in the canon that the prophets have given us. Is this not a touch of irony that should help the author soften his stance a bit? Is Hardy’s problem relying too much on the official wording rather than a scholar’s revision?

A further problem is Boyce’s view that Nephi’s words to his brothers about the vision he had cannot reflect his own views since he is merely an intermediary passing on what he learned from an angel and from Lehi. This seems out of touch with the basics of human conversation and certainly scholarship on the ways in which a text or story can be shaped by the teller for the teller’s own purposes. I can add a touch of my own views just in the way I read a fixed text out loud, choosing where to pause, what to emphasize, what to brush through quickly. But when I can paraphrase or retell a story in my own words, then I can dramatically inject my own views and attitudes, whether intentional or not. This should be obvious and is something that LDS students should know especially well as they consider the different ways Joseph shaped his First Vision account or the different ways Alma’s dramatic conversion story is told.

Further, many of us should know from family experiences that the attitude of a parent toward a rebellious child is often greatly different than the attitude of a well-behaved sibling who has suffered at the hands of the rebel. It is insufficient to deny this by saying that Nephi is just an intermediary or merely “answering questions.” Answering questions is the ideal way to teach our views and achieve our objectives in a conversation, whether we are conscious of that or not. Boyce’s insistence that Hardy is wrong because Nephi is just passing on Lehi’s vision or an angel’s words and is merely answering questions does nothing to undermine Hardy. I am surprised that this line of argumentation is pursued.

Hardy helps us see that Nephi’s own text provides subtle clues about this very plausible and natural difference in attitudes. Seeing it through the lens Hardy offers should not make us feel threatened by the possibility of Nephi having human weakness and frustrations that may have shaped his tone and message. Rather, Hardy’s lens helps us see in remarkably subtle ways that there are different voices and different authors in the Book of Mormon, indeed, real people, and the result is a nuanced, beautiful text that is deeper and more plausible that we had previously realized. Nephi and Jacob, for example, are very different in tone and style, but both are plausible examples of men who have suffered much at the hands of their brethren. One struggles with anger (2 Nephi 4) at his “enemies,” while the other seems to have become highly sensitive from his years of abuse. Meanwhile, Lehi is a tender parent doing all he can to love and rescue his wayward sons. Nephi speaks of justice and punishment for his enemies, while Lehi speaks of fear that his wicked sons may be lost. Those clues are there and need not be so vigorously denied because they do not undermine Nephi or prophethood or the Book of Mormon after all.

Building in such subtlety and plausibility that only now is being noticed would have been a remarkable task for young Joseph dictating from a hat. What Hardy offers is powerful evidence of Book of Mormon authenticity. Some of Hardy’s points may be weak at times, but the overall approach is one of refined and noteworthy scholarship from a faithful writer deserving more praise than condemnatory nitpicking.

I agree that scholars sometimes go too far in advancing their theories and sometimes fail to emphasize how speculative some suggestions may be. But Hardy's approach does not deserve to be treated as an example of blatant, fallacious, misleading material reflecting dangerous attitudes and a loss of real scholarship in the Church. His work deserves to be treated with more fairness.

The personal insights Hardy brings out regarding Nephi's stance and agenda resonates well with more recent scholarship on the evolution over time in Nephi's use of chiasmus. See Dennis Newton, "Nephi’s Use of Inverted Parallels," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 22 (2016): 79-106. Newton explores the large chiasmuses from Nephi, 15 in total, and sees an evolution in his themes. Nephi initially emphasizes obedience in his more extensive chiasmuses, but near the end of his writings he has shifted to focus on grace and the love of Christ. In light of Newton's analysis, Hardy's position seems all the more plausible: the early Nephi may have naturally preached obedience and keeping the commandments to his wayward brothers, coupled with an emphasis on the punishments they faced for their sins, while the more mature Nephi may finished his final chapters with a deeper understanding of the grace of Christ and a fuller appreciation of the love of God that the tree of life represented. Even prophets must learn and progress, and we may see some of this in Nephi's own writings.

Addendum, Aug. 1, 2017: Suppressing or Ignoring Evidence from Skousen? 

Boyce’s comments regarding Hardy’s alleged double-standard in his use of Skousen’s Critical Text also require a response. Boyce states:
Reliance on the word rejected in this part of Hardy’s argument, then, is an error. The truth about the language in this verse, far from serving as evidence for Hardy’s view about Nephi’s condemning and justice-oriented tone, actually serves as compelling evidence against it.
Additional Error. There is an additional layer to this error. After all, Hardy is familiar with Skousen’s textual change from “rejected” to “separated.” It is something he acknowledges in an endnote. What he does not do, however, is allow this alteration to affect his argument. This is surprising. Throughout his volume Hardy refers to Skousen’s textual changes and in each instance he accepts Skousen’s modification. In this case, however, while acknowledging in an endnote Nephi’s use of the word separated rather than rejected, Hardy proceeds in the text with his characterization of Nephi as if this correction didn’t exist — or at least as if it didn’t matter.
It does matter, though. Hardy’s characterization of Nephi as exclusionary and condemning depends in no small measure on the appearance of the word rejected in this particular passage. When Hardy discovers this is the wrong word, one would therefore expect him to identify this passage as a counterexample to his thesis about Nephi and address it in some way. What we do not expect is what Hardy actually does: ignore the disabling effect this correction has on his argument altogether.
This suggests a highly unfair, perhaps even unethical handling of Skousen, but that charge is questionable. Where does Hardy show signs that any of Skousen’s changes have changed or served as the basis of his argument? What does Boyce mean with “Throughout his volume Hardy refers to Skousen’s textual changes and in each instance he accepts Skousen’s modification”?

In the Kindle edition of Hardy’s book, it is easy to search for “Skousen” and thus one can see that he is mentioned only 3 times in the body of the text, outside of endnotes. First is in the Acknowledgements (loc. 47). Then comes a mention on page 67, where a table of 4 Isaiah verses from the KJV are compared to the Critical Text’s version of the Book of Mormon to illustrate something about the translation process, not anything relevant to Hardy’s arguments about Nephi or other Book of Mormon prophets. And finally comes another mention right after that table, still on page 67, noting that Skousen estimates that about 1/3 of the changes relative to the KJV involve italicized words. And that’s it. All other references to Skousen are in the endnotes (chapter notes), with little indication that any of his arguments depend on Skousen’s proposed changes, though there are many interesting and sometimes quite academic insights.

When Hardy discusses the fiery sword keeping mortals away from the tree of life, it is only in an endnote (#32 on p. 54) where we learn that Skousen proposes “sword” should replace “word” in 1 Nephi 12:18. I think that is an important observation that greatly strengthens Hardy’s argument, and wish it had been given more emphasis in the body of the text, but he discusses that merely as a quiet observation in an endnote, just as he observes in the next endnote (#33 on p. 54) that Skousen offers a proposed change that undermines Hardy’s point about the wicked being “rejected” (versus Skousen’s “separated”) from the tree of life.

Those are the only two changes in wording from Skousen’s Critical Text that appear to have significant bearing on Hardy’s arguments, one significantly strengthening part of an argument and one undermining an aspect of an argument, and both are handled the same way–fairly. Both are cited in an endnote. This cannot fairly be characterized as unethical. I don't think it is proper to say that Hardy acts “as if this correction didn’t exist” when he gives it just as much weight as a similar change that greatly strengthens his argument? Boyce seems to error when he says that Hardy fails to identify Skousen’s proposed change and that he has chosen to “ignore the disabling effect this correction has on his argument altogether” when in fact he has identified Skousen’s proposed correction and has not ignored it at all, but given it just as much weight as a proposed correction in his favor.

Hardy’s book was written nearly 10 years ago and published in 2010. Skousen’s work was not so widely known and accepted then as it is now, and it was a sign of good scholarship that Hardy was citing Skousen and paying attention to the details of that scholarship already at that time. But his tendency is to rely on the canon that we have, leaving the details of a scholar’s proposed changes for endnotes. And for this, for failure to value Skousen over the canonized text, we are to accuse Hardy of grave error in failing to rely properly on the prophets instead of LDS scholarship?

The other references in endnotes to proposed textual changes from Skousen include endnote 13 from page 40 (the note itself occurs on p. 268) which tells us that 1 Nephi 3:16 has the singular “commandment” in Skousen’s Critical Text versus “commandments” in the current printing, which is consistent with a minor argument made by Hardy, but not of great import. Another minor observation from Skousen’s Critical Text is found in a note regarding 1 Nephi 19:4 (note 23, p. 47). Another minor observation is made regarding 1 Nephi 9:4 in endnote 24 on p. 47 (“reigns of the kings” vs. “reign of the kings”), which has little impact on Hardy’s arguments.

A proposed change is also found in endnote 37 on p. 56 which has little impact on Hardy’s point about 2 Nephi 4:26 (Skousen proposes that “visited men” should be “visited me”).
In the section on Mormon, Hardy in endnote 1 on p. 89 observes a minor change proposed by Skousen with no obvious bearing on the analysis of the verse considered (Jacob 7:26). Other revisions noted without significant bearing on his argument include endnote 45 on p. 80, endnote 3 on p. 90, endnote 12 on p. 102, endnote 14 on p. 103, a minor insight from Original Manuscript in endnote 44 from p. 142, a minor issue in endnote 28 on p. 171, another in endnote 44 of p. 206, endnote 52 on p. 211, endnote 2 on p. 219, endnote 14 on p. 227, endnote 22 on p. 236, and endnote 7 on p. 268. These are provided for the reader’s information and aren’t necessarily accepted or rejected.
Nearly all of the endnotes discussing Skousen’s work are there for completeness and don’t affect the argument Hardy is making. Skousen’s proposed alternative is directly relevant in only two cases, in my opinion, and both are handled in the same way. There is no sign of a double standard or unethical cherry picking that Boyce alleges, in my opinion.

If Hardy were actually suppressing evidence, he could have simply left out the footnote where he explains Skousen’s offers “separated” instead of “rejected.” But he treats that case the same way he treats a proposed change that strengthens his argument: it’s placed in a footnote, while the main body of the text relies on the canonized text. It’s evenhanded and fair — unlike the harsh treatment Hardy receives in this paper. I feel an apology, retraction, or correction of some kind is warranted. Boyce is trying to strengthen the faith and encourage acceptance of prophets and the canon, but the methodology here seems seriously flawed. I hope Part 3 will reflect careful corrections to ensure it more fully complies with the high standards that the Interpreter seeks to follow.

Concluding Note
Finally, let me remind readers that in spite of my strong disagreement with conclusions and methodology, Boyce is sincerely seeking to strengthen the faith and thinking of Latter-day Saints, and I apologize if my own tone in challenging him is too harsh. He makes numerous points that many readers might perceive as well reasoned and intelligent. But I think that at least some of his targets do not deserve the criticism he levies, and in his passionate effort to condemn sloppy LDS scholarship, has made some unfortunate errors in scholarship himself.

Such errors are easy to make, and I have made similar errors in my own writings where I miss a key point or misunderstand a source I criticize. I hope the explanation of apparent errors will result in some revisions, at least in the forthcoming Part 3, and some form of acknowledgement to temper what has been said so far, so that noteworthy and faithful LDS scholars may be more fairly characterized.

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